Unnamed Christians Accused after Muslim Attack in Pakistan

Armed Islamic assault following fruit stand scuffle leads to police round-up of Christians.

KARACHI, Pakistan, February 26 (CDN) — In the wake of an attack this week by 150 armed Muslims on a Christian colony in this city in Sindh Province, police have filed a false First Information Report (FIR) against 40 unnamed Christians and arrested five, Christian leaders said.

They said the 40 unnamed Christians in the FIR are accused without basis with beating Muslim men, abusing Muslim women and girls, ransacking Muslim homes and looting expensive items from Muslim homes. The false FIR is designed only to harass the Christian community, they said, adding that the five arrested Christians were visitors to the area – the only ones on the street available for police to summarily round up, as they were unaware of the FIR.

Some 150 armed Muslims assaulted the Christian colony of Pahar Ganj in North Nazimabad, Karachi, on Sunday (Feb. 21), damaging two churches, shooting at houses, beating Christians and burning shops and vehicles after a fruit stand vendor attacked a Christian boy for touching his merchandise.

Christian leaders said Muslim extremists helped gather and inflame the assailants, but they said the fruit stand vendor upset with the 14-year-old Christian boy for touching plums on his hand-pulled cart initially instigated the attack. The unnamed vendor reportedly had a previous conflict with the boy, whose name was also withheld, and in objecting to the teenager’s actions he slashed his hand with a fruit knife and threw an iron weight at him, Christian leaders said.

A Muslim eyewitness who spoke on condition of anonymity said the fruit stand was located at the entrance of the colony of more than 1,000 Christian homes. Eyewitnesses said that Christians struck the fruit vendor in the course of rescuing the boy from him.

Touching and even tasting fruit before buying is a common practice in Pakistan, according to Pakistan Christian TV, and the vendor called his fruit “defiled” not because the boy was a Christian – nearly all customers in that area were Christians – but because the vendor had a previous conflict with him and did not want to sell to him.

Social class evidently also played a role. Eyewitnesses said the Muslim fruit vendor yelled, “This Christian Bhangi untouchable has defiled my fruit.” The derogatory “Bhangi,” literally “sewer man,” is commonly used to denigrate Christians in Sindh Province. In the Sindhi language it signifies “unholy” or “untouchable,” with its Punjabi equivalent being “Choohra.”

The conflict quickly took on a religious tint. Bystanders tried to help resolve the conflict between the vendor and the boy, according to eyewitnesses, but the street seller riled up Muslims, mainly those of the Pathan clan, by saying, “My Muslim brethren, pay heed to me – that Christian Bhangi has defiled my fruit and made blasphemous remarks about the Quran.” Later that day, the Christian leaders said, the 150 armed Pathan men attacked the area Christians, who responded by pelting them with stones.

The Rev. Edward Joseph of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Karachi said the furious Muslim mob of armed, mainly Pathan men, gathered at the entrance of the Christian slum and charged in, attacking homes and desecrating and vandalizing St. Mary’s Church of Pakistan and the Interdenominational Calvary Church. Noor Sahotra, a Christian in Pahar Ganj, said he sustained minor injuries in an effort protect St. Mary’s Church of Pakistan.

Anwer Masih, a Christian who witnessed the attack, told Compass that several shops owned and run by Christians were looted and then set on fire, reducing them to ashes and depriving Christians of their livelihood. The rampaging mob also burned vehicles and tires at the main entrance of colony, he said.    

Previously the Rev. Aashiq Pervaiz, head of Interdenominational Calvary Church, reportedly had said Christian leaders had decided not to file charges against the Muslim assailants – presumably to forestall the counter-charges that Muslims typically file as a defensive measure in such conflicts.

More than 200 Christians and Muslims reportedly gathered to resolve tensions on Monday (Feb. 22), with Pervaiz telling the throng that the Christians forgave the attackers and had not filed any charges against assailants.

Shahid Kamal, national director of the Pakistan Campus Crusade for Christ, told Compass that the FIR that Muslims filed against Christians was registered at Noor-e-Jehan road, North Nazimabad Pahar Ganj police station. He said Pahar Gangj police had arrested five Christian visitors to Christian families of the colony.

The Rev. Razzaq Mathews said Muslims have frequently leveled baseless charges of blasphemy against area Christians.

“In the sad Pahar Ganj episode, Christians were attacked for nothing,” he said. “A handful of Muslim extremists persuaded Muslims to assail the Christian residential area as well as to desecrate the holy churches and holy Christian books, including Bible.”

He said the attack lasted for almost two hours.   

Sources told Compass that local politicians and clergymen from both sides were trying to broker a truce. They said Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani has taken notice of the incident and directed the deputy inspector general of Central Karachi district to investigate and submit a report.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Accused Pakistani Christian Says Muslims Tried to Coerce Him

Freed on bail, Naveed Masih on trial for killing Muslim in Islamist attack on Gojra.

LAHORE, Pakistan, December 29 (CDN) — A Pakistani Christian accused of killing a Muslim during the Aug. 1 Islamist attack on Christians in Gojra said he was arrested and tortured only because he was a key witness of the mob assault that left at least seven Christians burned to death.

Naveed Masih, released on bail on Wednesday (Dec. 23), told Compass that several Muslims have offered him large amounts of money to alter his testimony regarding the assault in Gojra, 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Faisalabad in Punjab Province. The mob attack, prompted by calls from Muslim clerics spreading a false rumor of “blasphemy” of the Quran, included banned Islamic terrorist groups and resulted in the looting of more than 100 houses and the burning of 50 of them; at least 19 people were injured.

Masih said one of the Muslims accused in the attack, Qadir Awan, approached him at an early court hearing and invited him to come to his house to strike a cash-for-testimony deal.

“He said that I could make lots of money because I was the witness of the ransacking, but I feared God,” the 32-year-old Masih said. “Because I was not prepared to take money, he had me implicated in the counter-charges.”

He said that several other Muslims contacted him in jail to tell him that they could help him.

“I told them that my brothers and sisters in Pakistan and abroad are more than enough to help me,” he said. “I said, ‘You take care of yourself – you people beg our brothers and sisters in the United States for aid and financial assistance to run the country, how is it that you can help me?’”

Fearing for his life now that he is out on bail, Masih said he has asked several organizations for assistance and, assuming he is acquitted, eventually for safe passage out of Pakistan.

“I would not be left alive if I live here in Pakistan,” he said.

In counter-charges filed as a cover for accused Muslims after Christians filed charges, he said, 129 people including Bishop of Gojra John Samuel were accused in a First Information Report (FIR), yet only Masih and his brother Nauman Masih were arrested. The Faisalabad Anti-Terrorism Court released the 25-year-old Nauman Masih on bail in October.

The Lahore High Court granted bail to Naveed Masih last week after the Faisalabad Anti-Terrorism Court had denied it to him in October. Naveed Masih is accused of killing one of the assailants in the Gojra attacks, Muhammad Asif. He is said to have fired warning shots from a rooftop into the air and at the feet of the approaching Muslim mob to try to disperse them, but both brothers deny using any weapons.

The brothers gave shelter to 300 people during the attacks; they were arrested in early September initially for “rioting with deadly weapons and spreading terror with firing.”

Naveed Masih said police knew the counter-charges filed by Muslims nearly two months after the Aug. 1 attack were entirely concocted, but that they arrested and tortured him anyway.

“When I was arrested, the policemen said, ‘Catch this choohra [a racial slur typically used against Punjabi Christians],’” he told Compass. “They asked me which organization I belonged to, what my mission was and who had sent me on this mission.”

Authorities beat him the first several days in jail, he said.

“They blindfolded me and hung me in a dark well, and sometimes I hung all night upside down without clothes,” he said. “They also kept me hungry and tried to force me to confess that some religious organization funded me to fire a weapon and instigate Muslims.”

Trial Strategies

Akbar Munawar Durrani, an attorney for the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement, said that the prosecutor in the trial has told the court that Christians were the ones who instigated Muslims by firing weapons, and that for this reason Asif died.

“I told the court,” Durrani said, “that it is strange that two days before the Aug. 1 incident, dozens of houses of Christians were burned in [nearby] Korian village, and then in this incident of Aug. 1 more than 100 houses of Christians were burned, and the prosecution keeps trumpeting this claim that Christians were the aggressors.”

Durrani said that when Lahore High Court Chief Justice Khawaja Sharif asked Investigation Officer Muhammad Aslam about his findings, Aslam told the court that if Christians hadn’t provoked Muslims then nothing would have happened. The judge asked Aslam how many Christians and how many Muslims died, Durrani said, to which the officer replied one Muslim and eight Christians.

“Still you say that Christians were the aggressors,” the judge told Aslam in a reprimanding tone.

Durrani, an executive member of the Supreme Court Bar Association, said he told the court that Masih was implicated in the killing of Asif only because he was one of two witnesses in the FIR filed against the Muslims. If Masih hadn’t defended Christians that day, he told the court, then the Christian Colony in Gojra would have suffered much more harm.

Masih said that he had learned that during the Aug. 1 attack, a member of the banned terrorist group Sipah-e-Sahaba stopped the motorbike he was riding, took gas out of it and set houses on fire.

Nauman Masih has told Compass that of the 17 Muslims named in the FIR on the Aug. 1 attack, only one, Abdul Khalid Kashmiri, was in jail. Kashmiri has offered 1 million rupees (US$12,500) if the Christian complainants would withdraw the case, he added.

The rest of the Muslim assailants are still at large, and sources said police have no intention of arresting them.

Naveed Masih said he learned that even before he was sent to jail, inmates were murmuring that he had killed a Muslim during the mob attack.

“I told them that they only talked about the Muslim who actually came to attack and got killed, but they never mentioned eight Christians who had died during that rampage,” he said. “‘Christians are also human beings,’ I told them, ‘why don’t you count those who were killed by Muslims?’”

He said Muslim inmates often asked him “nonsense questions,” but that he always answered them sensibly.

“I am sure that the Holy Spirit helped me answering them, because once they had asked any such questions, then they never again raised such questions,” he said.

Masih said police stopped torturing him after the first several days in jail. He said he continually prayed for God to free him, as well as for all Christians who supported him and his brother through their ordeal.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Local security officials, Muslim clerics named in police complaint.

GOJRA, Pakistan, Aug. 5 (Compass Direct News) – A standoff here between Pakistani officials and Christians protesting the government’s reluctance to prosecute a murderous Islamic assault ended with officials finally consenting to file a complaint against key Muslim clerics and security officers.

On Sunday (Aug. 2) hundreds of Christians demonstrated in Gojra, where the previous day rampaging Muslims – acting on an unsubstantiated rumor of “blasphemy” of the Quran and whipped into a frenzy by local imams and banned terrorist groups – killed at least seven Christians, looted more than 100 houses and set fire to 50 of them. At least 19 people were injured in the melee.

In protest of government reluctance to name two security officers for negligence in connection with Christians burned to death, demonstrators on Sunday refused to quickly bury the dead as officials requested. Believing the government was stalling in registering a complaint, demonstrators put the coffins with the charred remains on railroad tracks for three hours before officials agreed to include District Police Officer (DPO) Inkasar Khan and District Coordinating Officer (DCO) Sikandar Baloch in the complaint filed against more than 20 named and 800 unnamed people.

Among those arrested include members of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, a pro-Taliban, Sunni Muslim group, and its al Qaeda-linked offshoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi; officials said members of both groups were suspected of planning the attack in Gojra.

The Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) reported that at least 14 Christians had been killed, and Christians in the affected areas told Compass the final death toll will likely be more than 20. The only deaths confirmed by hospital officials, however, are those of seven members of a family who died when their home was set on fire; names and ages in this report vary slightly from the hospital list as they are based on Compass contact with their survivors: Hameed Masih, 75; his son Akhlaq Hameed, 55; Asia Hameed, 22, wife of Mohsin Hameed; her mother Parveen, 50; Asifa Hameed, 30 (wife of survivor Almas Hameed), and her 8-year-old daughter Umia and 4-year-old son Musa.

With the caskets containing the remains of the dead Christians sitting in public for some time, the local administration tried to force survivors to conduct a hasty funeral, telling them to hold a service in Catholic parish hall and bury the dead as soon as possible.

Federal Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti and other prominent Christians met with the local administration, but negotiations failed as the two security officials were not named in the First Information report (FIR). A Catholic priest identified only as Father Mani then told protestors that an FIR had been registered and that he had seen it, and that therefore the demonstration should be called off.

But protestors did not believe him, insisting that they would not quit until they saw a copy of the FIR. Only after continued protests, with the dead bodies on the railway track for more than three hours, did officials register a case against key suspects in connection with murder, looting and violence: more than 20 identified people, including DPO Khan and DCO Baloch, who are accused of negligence in allowing the Islamic violence to erupt, and some 800 unidentified suspects.

Nevertheless, sources told Compass, the two officers have not been suspended, terminated or arrested. Rather, they have been made Special Duty Officers – an officer who is fully paid but has yet to be posted.

The FIR also names Muslim clerics of several Gojra mosques, including the imam of nearby Chamra Mandi Mosque, called Firdausia Mosque. Muslim groups held a press conference today in Gojra calling on the government to free clerics named in the FIR, according to CLAAS. They also threatened to hang Talib Masih, father of the boy who was falsely accused of tossing cut pages of the Quran into the air as part of a wedding ceremony in Korian.

The same rumor of desecration of the Quran that led to Saturday’s massive protest and attack in Gojra, 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Faisalabad, also prompted the arson assault on Thursday (July 30) by Islamic extremists on the village of Korian, seven miles from Gojra.

In the Gojra violence, several people have also implicated Qadir Awan, president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in Gojra, who was also named in the FIR. Zahid Iqbal, administrative head of a section of Gojra called Union Council-21, said that Awan had no role in the rioting.

The bodies of the seven Christians had been kept in the mortuary of Civil Hospital in Gojra, where the Christian advocacy group called Community Development Initiative (CDI) helped wash the bodies and facilitated their transfer to the families.

Government Response

Amid strict security, a funeral service for the victims of the Gojra riots’ victims took place on Sunday (Aug. 2). Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah and Minorities Affairs Minister Bhatti participated in the funeral procession.

There Sanaullah announced that Punjab Chief Minister Sharif would visit the Christian community to express his condolences – “Beyond the FIR we are with you in punishing those who let this conspiracy succeed or participated in this conspiracy,” Sanaullah said – but Christians were disappointed the next day when he didn’t show.

Christians refused to speak with the representatives the chief minister had sent in his stead nor with other PML-N members. Provincial Minorities Minister Kamran Michael threatened to resign over the issue, and due to this pressure Chief Minister Sharif visited the area yesterday (Aug. 4), assuring the community that he would do his utmost to provide justice.

To assess the damage, the chief minister has constituted a 16-member group under the chairmanship of Michael.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has formed a committee to ascertain the amount of damage done during the rioting, and as soon as President Asif Ali Zardari learned of the incident he sent Minorities Minister Bhatti to Gojra.

President Zardari also announced that 500,000 rupees (US$6,040) will be made available for each person killed and 300,000 rupees (US$3,624) for those whose houses were burned. Prime Minister Gilani is also expected to announce a special package for the affected families.

A report submitted by Bhatti to the president states that the Punjab government and local administration failed to stem the violence. It adds that additional troops were not sent to help local authorities in Gojra, despite the advice of the minorities minister.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik has also sought a report from the interior secretary and the Punjab inspector general.

Farahnaz Ispahani, spokesperson for President Zardari, told Compass that after Muslims burned more than 50 homes in Korian village on July 30 and 31 – following the accusation of “blasphemy” of the Quran that proved to be false – the president asked the Punjabi government to report on it. After the subsequent Aug. 1 rioting in Gojra, she said, he immediately dispatched Bhatti to the site with orders to report back.

Ispahani said that after the president talked to Prime Minister Gilani, the prime minister called Chief Minister of the Punjab Sharif over the incident. When it became clear that police were unable to handle the matter, she said, the president ordered Rangers – paramilitary troops mainly deployed along the border for security – into Gojra to take charge and save Christians from further damage.

CDI Field Officer Napoleon Qayyum told Compass that CDI had strongly objected to the route of the Aug. 1 Islamic demonstration – which had been called to protest the release of the man whose son was falsely accused of desecrating pages of the Quran – saying he had told DPO Khan that it should not pass by any churches or Christian areas. As Islamic clerics made threatening announcements from mosques the day before the rampage, Qayyum said, DCO Baloch also had ample warning that violence was imminent.

“The way things were moving in Gojra, no rocket science was needed to predict this fallout,” he said, adding that announcements from loudspeakers mounted on vehicles broadcast how Christians had supposedly desecrated the Quran.

Punjab Minister for Law Sanaullah said an initial investigation of allegations of the Quran being blasphemed indicated “there has not been any incident of desecration.”

The CDI also objected to a two-member committee set up by provincial Chief Minister Sharif regarding violence in Korian village.

“Our objection was that no Christian was on the committee,” Qayyum said, “because how could administration and police be thought to be unbiased? It was the first step where the provincial government showed partiality.”

After Korian village Christians were attacked, the government showed no interest in arresting or reining in rampaging mobs, according to Qayyum, who said that the day after that assault he saw crowds there still armed with clubs wearing green, dark brown or black turbans, an indication that “religious fanatics were still roaming free.”

Likewise, he added, the provincial government allowed the civil administration and police to use delaying tactics in June 30 violence in Bahmaniwala village, where 110 houses were plundered and ransacked in Kasur.

Christians make up less than 5 percent of Pakistan’s 175 million population, which is mainly Muslim.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Police ignore arrest order, but lawyers hopeful 13-year-old can be returned to parents.

ISTANBUL, February 26 (Compass Direct News) – After months of legal deadlock, lawyers in Pakistan said they have new hope they can restore to her family a 13-year-old Christian girl who was kidnapped and forced to marry a Muslim.

Saba Masih might be returned to her family, the lawyers said, if they can legally maneuver around Pakistani policemen who have stonewalled their attempts to pursue a kidnapping case against the captors. On Saturday (Feb. 21) a Pakistani judge charged the suspects with kidnapping for the first time in the seven-month legal ordeal.

“The judiciary is one thing, the police are another,” said Arfan Goshe, a lawyer who has taken on the custody case. “I will prove [the three accused men] kidnapped Saba so the judiciary will force the police to arrest them.”

On Saturday (Feb. 21), Judge Mohammed Ilyas issued a First Instance Report (FIR) at a subordinate court in the Punjabi village of Chawk Munda against Amjad Ali, Muhammad Ashraf and Muhammed Arif Bajwa on charges of kidnapping, trespassing, and threatening the Masih family.

Attorney Goshe, a Muslim, said the three kidnappers trespassed onto the property of Yunus Masih, the father of Saba, and threatened to kill his family and burn down his house in late December.

The decision to file kidnapping charges marks a major shift of momentum in the case. In previous hearings judges have nearly always sided with the kidnappers – based on either dubious evidence or threats from local Islamists – in the Muslims’ legal battle to retain custody of Saba and her 10-year-old sister Aneela. A court ruled the younger daughter could return to her family last September.

The two girls were kidnapped in June 2008 while traveling to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan. Saba was married to Ali the next day. Bajwa and Ali registered a case with police on June 28 for custody of the girls based on their alleged conversion to Islam. The court granted them custody in July.

At nearly all the hearings, Muslim groups protested outside the courtroom against lawyers attempting to return Saba to her Christian parents. A traditional interpretation of Islamic law (sharia) does not allow non-Muslim parents to have custody of Muslim children.

In spite of the judge’s decision to begin procedures for kidnapping charges, Chawk Munda police have not followed through with the FIR by arresting the three Muslims. Today the judge contacted the local police station and ordered officers to register the kidnapping case against the three men, Goshe told Compass. He said he hopes police will file the FIR within the next few days.

“The police are favoring the accused party at this time,” he said. “Everybody knows [Saba] was abducted, and that the culprits are trying to threaten minorities everywhere.”

But others are less optimistic the kidnappers will be arrested. Khalid Raheel, Saba’s uncle, said he believes he may have to bribe the police. They would likely demand around 20,000 Pakistani rupees (US$250), he said.

Uncooperative police had also blocked the legal team’s efforts to register charges before Saturday’s ruling. As a result, the Christian family’s lawyers filed a private complaint to the subordinate court of Chawk Munda, sidestepping the need for a police investigation to file charges that would be necessary at a normal criminal court.

Goshe said the court is finally complying after months of deadlock because the multiple charges against the kidnappers cannot be ignored. Previous court hearings focused on Saba’s alleged conversion to Islam to mitigate the charges of her kidnapping, but the judiciary could not ignore the three suspects’ subsequent crimes of trespassing and attempting to burn down the Masihs’ house, he said.

In January, lawyer Akbar Durrani of the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) filed an appeal to register kidnapping charges against Ali, the husband of Saba. Durrani had tried to register these charges in December, but Judge Malik Saeed Ijaz refused the case since it was built upon the testimony of Saba’s sister Aneela, whose status as a minor invalidated her testimony.

Instead, the judge ordered Ali to pay a dowry of 100,000 rupees (US$1,255) and allow her parents to visit, both required by Pakistani marriage protocol. Saba, however, relinquished her dowry, a prerogative provided by sharia. Her family suspects that she made this decision under threat.


Struggling Family

Attempts by Saba’s family to contact and visit her have been thwarted by Ali’s Muslim family members, despite a court order for visitation rights.

“We have heard nothing from Saba,” said Raheel, her uncle. “Once we tried to visit her, and [Ali’s family] ran after us and tried to shoot us. But the judges did not do anything.”

The seven months of legal battling have taken their toll on Saba’s family. Her parents have eight children but have been unable to send their sons to school due to the ongoing costs of the case, even though CLAAS has undertaken it pro bono.

The girls’ uncle has been trying to maintain the family’s quality of life as they struggle to get Saba back and their legal options dwindle.

“This year I will try my best to help them and send them to a school,” said Raheel.

Aneela continues to adjust to life back with her family, away from captivity. She is preparing to resume her schooling.


Common Crime

Kidnapping and rape victims in Pakistan are often Christians, since the influence of sharia on the country’s judicial system means they can be unofficially treated as second-class citizens.

Last month Muslims allegedly abducted and raped another 13-year-old Christian girl. CLAAS reported that two men kidnapped Ambreen Masih in the industrial city of Sheikupura, located northwest of Lahore. Her attackers threatened to her keep silent, and she was abducted a second time this month before her parents discovered the crime, according to a CLAAS report.

The family filed rape charges against the two kidnappers in Sheikupura, but policeman have not yet taken legal action, according to CLAAS.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Defender of minority rights allegedly framed for making legal challenges in church land dispute.

ISTANBUL, February 5 (Compass Direct News) – More than 100 protestors last week surrounded a Pakistani courthouse and chanted death threats against a Punjabi Christian said to be framed for sending a “blasphemous” text message on his cell phone.

Rawalpindi police arrested Hector Aleem, 51, on Jan. 22 and detained him on charges of sending a text message that insulted the Islamic prophet Muhammad. At his Jan. 27 hearing at the Rawalpindi Sessions Court, crowds gathered and began shouting death threats.

His attorney, Malik Tafik, told Compass that a local man allegedly framed Aleem for the charges because Aleem has made legal challenges on behalf of Christians involved in a land dispute. Aleem directs a small agency that often defends the rights of Christians.

Last November, a scholar associated with the national Islamist political movement Sunni Tehreek received a text message claiming to have come from Aleem. The religious scholar registered blasphemy charges against Aleem on Nov. 28 at the Rawalpindi police station.

Police raided Aleem’s house at 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 22 and assaulted him, his wife, and his two daughters. They also stole 50,000 Pakistan rupees (US$630) worth of valuables and broke pictures of Jesus hanging on their walls, according to a report from the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).

Authorities charged him with violating sections 295c (blasphemy) and 109bb (abetting) of the Pakistani criminal code. Aleem was transferred to a Rawalpindi anti-terrorism court for a second hearing on Jan. 30, where an even larger crowd of protestors gathered shouting that his life would not be spared. Many of those who came to protest were associated with Sunni Tehreek, which has been involved in violent sectarian clashes with other Islamist movements in the last decade.

“There were about 150 people protesting that Aleem should be handed over to them,” Tafik said. “And there were many journalists, two news stations, and lawyers who came out to protest against him.”

Aleem is detained at the Adiyala Jail in Rawalpindi. During his incarceration, police have mistreated him and denied him adequate food and access to medicine for his heart condition. He told lawyers that police have not allowed him to meet with his family and referred to him as “choohra” (sweeper), a derogatory term for Pakistani Christians to designate them as the lowest rung of society.

At a hearing at an anti-terrorism court on Monday (Feb. 2), Judge Sakhi Mohammad Kohut exonerated him of blasphemy charges but did not clear him of abetting. A government official told Compass that the judge’s decision was heavily influenced by Islamic extremists attending the open court hearing who told the judge, “If you release [Aleem], then we will kill him outside.”

At the hearing, the judge implicated the man who allegedly framed Aleem – Bashar Kokar, previously charged multiple times with fraud – accusing him of using his cell phone to send a blasphemous message against Muhammad. Kokar was charged with blasphemy and arrested later that day. But court evidence shows the original text message came from an unregistered mobile number that pertained to neither Kokar nor Aleem, sources said – exonerating Aleem, but also making it difficult to prove that Kokar framed him. Khushdil Khan Malik, deputy secretary of Pakistan’s Ministry of Human Rights, said he believes the judge implicated Kokar as a scapegoat for the blasphemy charges in order to appease the extremists.

The next hearing will be held in March. Attorney Tafik told Compass he believes Aleem will be cleared of all charges because there is no evidence against him.


Targeted for Defending Christian Rights

Sources said they believe Aleem was framed due to his social activism as director of a small Non-Governmental Organization that lobbies for the rights of Pakistani Christians in Islamabad.

In November he became involved in a land dispute between a congregation and a local municipality that wanted to demolish their church building. He has been wrongfully implicated in the past for minor offenses, a government deputy said, particularly for his advocacy work against the Capital Development Authority, a municipal works agency that has been charged with unlawful confiscation and destruction of Christian property.

Aleem has been cleared of these minor offenses. The seriousness of the blasphemy charge, however, puts him and his family in danger. Besides his attorney, other legal advocates said they believe he will be cleared of all charges as there is no evidence that he sent the original text message.

Until then, his family is hiding underground due to threats of violence by Muslim extremists, said Joseph Francis, national director of CLAAS. And once he is released, it will be hard for Aleem to return to a normal life in Rawalpindi with the stigma of even unproven charges of blasphemy hanging over his head.

“What will happen after [the trial] is a matter of concern,” said Malik of Pakistan’s human rights ministry. “There have been many incidents of the sudden deaths of people charged with blasphemy.”

As many of those hostile to him are members of Sunni Tehreek who are dispersed throughout Pakistan, he and his family would be targeted by local members of the organization if they fled to another city. The only solution may be to seek asylum in another country, a source told Compass.


Problematic Law

Blasphemy has been used frequently in Pakistani law as a tool to silence or intimidate non-Muslims, including another case this week.

Yesterday a pastor, his son, and his father were charged with blasphemy in the village of Baddomehli, 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Lahore. Muslim classmates of pastor Shafik Masih’s teenage son claimed he had a blasphemous pamphlet in his backpack and began to assault him, according to a CLAAS report.

Realizing the danger of sectarian violence, the police chief of the region yesterday called on Christians to seek refuge as local Muslims were assembling a protest.

Christian members of Pakistan’s Parliament have moved to strike the blasphemy laws from the national criminal code.

“In the past, only a superintendent of police could file blasphemy charges,” attorney Tafik said. “But now a private person can register a case of blasphemy and it can be misused because anyone can use it.”  

Report from Compass Direct News